Where ideas meet the pavement: Congress 2014

To say that Congress 2014 was simply hosted by Brock University would be a tragic understatement. This year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences entirely took over the University campus, spreading out for an extravagant week-long conference in an attempt to prove to the world that research matters even when a microscope is not involved.

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From May 24 to 30, Congress 2014 of the Humanities and Social Sciences drew an attendance of over 8,000 registered industry professionals, researchers and interested educators as well as many interested observers, attending many of the 30+ events that were free to the public.

One of the most impressive features of Congress was the absolute breadth of the conference. Not only geographically, taking up lecture halls, residences, Rodman Hall and most of the campus, but also in content. Many faculties ranging from Psychology, Sociology to English Literature and Philosophy treat this national conference as a pivotal, central meeting place to discuss and showcase their efforts.

One of the things that made Brock University’s hosting unique was the inclusion of the Visual Arts in the very core of the Congress. Walking through the University, participants found many artistic attributions, from the student collaboration project with Althea Thauberger, “A Loft” being looped in the hallway; to Brock Associate Professor Shawn Serfas’ art installation piece, “Plaything”, art was well represented at the conference.

“The conference provided a great chance to show off my work and research,” commented Serfas. “It was just logical to show these two pieces there. The art itself complicates borders of relevance, the environmental use and protection, as well as the history of abstraction”.

These concurrent themes match the overlying motto of this year’s Congress, “Borders without Boundaries”, and this central idea was reverberated at many of the keynotes and exhibits.

Specifically, Associate Professor Donna Szoke’s and Ricarda McDonald’s art installation, “and all watched over by machines of loving grace” followed the conference’s stand for policy and societal advocation by commenting on the insecurity of private information. The display boasts two television monitors and a Kinect motion sensor, as an attendee walked by, the eyes would follow them.

“It was just creepy and funny enough to get people interested and thinking,” said Szoke. “Art doesn’t just amuse or delight, it disturbs.”

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Ideas have power to practically influence individuals and change lives — and there is no better example of this than the Momentum Choir performance. The choir is made up of approximately 50 adults with intellectual disabilities. Directed by Mendelt Hoekstra, this Niagara choir in its seventh season is actively dismantling discourses of disability. Through weekly, professional and intensive practices, these choir members are empowered musically and shown that they can actively participate and make inspiring contributions to the world. The choir did indeed make a difference, even just by inspiring and making the entirety of the Sean O’ Sullivan theatre misty-eyed at the most amazing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” I’ve ever heard.

Even at Rodman Hall, artists Nadine Bariteau and contributors designed an exhibit to advocate for societal change in the way the world looks at, uses and values water in “The Source: Rethinking Water Through Contemporary Art”. With these cerebral videos, displays and pieces, art is no longer benign, it is taking a practical role in changing and influencing the world.

That seems to be what Congress was about after all: taking the research these trained professionals have collected and making it matter on an individual basis. After a week of lectures, displays, events and inspiration, an appeal to activism was certainly strongly delivered and received.

With Congress 2015 being hosted in Ottawa, Brock’s time up at bat will certainly have left its mark on the attendees and exhibitors. That is, even if their only memory is getting lost and questioning the meaning of life in the corridors of Mackenzie Chown.

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